Richard Hoyes teaches himself to play sax

25th February 2000 at 00:00
I am learning to play the saxophone. I made a filthy, horrible sound to begin with but now I'm getting into a soft seductive way of playing. The sound is probably no better but as I rock back a little and swing my hips and the reed softens in my mouth after a glass or two of home-brew, I feel as if I'm getting somewhere.

My younger daughter, who plays the drums, has even offered to accompany me with a soft riff. Anyhow, I'm living proof of the total dispensability of the music teaching profession. I am self taught. When I was at school my parents got caught up in a hire purchase scam which meant I ended up with a tenth-hand silver-plated pig of a flute. I had just heard Roland Kirk's album We Free Kings and I tried imitating his style by muttering into the flute as I played. Kirk's trademark was to sing and play at the same time. I failed. I was to the flute as Billie Jean King was at the time to women's tennis. I grunted unladylike at every note to make sure it got over the net.

My music teacher at school failed to get the pig to whistle, however hard he blew. "It's your embouchure, Sir," I used to tell him, smirking. He put it down to the key pads not being airtight. He was a pipe smoker and proved his point by blowing in smoke. "There's your problem," he said as it seeped out. As a result, even today I associate flute playing with the taste of his Balkan Sobranie.

So who needs music teachers? All you need is someone who can blow smoke into your instrument and tell you it's a rip off.

Life without teachers. It's wonderful and I recommend it. There's this point when you suddenly get the hang of it and you soar away with your new-found skill. It's like learning to ride a bike without anyone running alongside saying "steady" and "mind the parked cars". For weeks as an adult saxophone learner I was stuck with only the lower range of notes. There's a technique you use to get the higher ones. You purse your lips, blow a little harder, go redder in the face and, as the tears start in your eyes, you uddenly find it. I suppose if I'd had a decent teacher I'd have got there sooner but it didn't matter. I got there. And when I did I felt I'd known this all along. It was as if in some previous existence I'd already done it. Been there, done that, forgotten all about it.

It was an out-of-my-body experience. That upper register moment was the nearest I'd ever get to giving birth. For a moment I felt my waters were about to break and my first contraction begin. It was Platonic. I had discovered the previous knowledge of the soul. It was just a question of bringing it out.

Like the e-word, education. Educo, Latin, I lead out. Learning is about unlearning. Forgetting we don't know how to do it. Believing in the magic that if we just blow harder on the saxophone we can get the upper notes. And when it comes to magic, teachers can get in the way.

But the truly inspirational teacher is different. Just before her piano exam, my daughter had a half-hour briefing with the head of music - my daughter is a student at my college. He wasn't her regular private teacher: she had gone into premature labour. Nothing, I assured him, to do with my saxophone.

My daughter came home amazed. He'd made Poulenc sound like, well, Poulenc. She had heard him play. He'd transposed her pieces from minor to major and back again, just like that. For the first time she understood what music is all about. She had entered the semi-darkened room they call the minor key and recognised the shaded beauty that poets, painters and musicians have been banging on about for centuries.

She had seen a teacher walk on water. And it's inspirational, that. You see somebody doing a miracle. And feel "I'll have a go". I'll walk on water, a bit. It may come lapping up to my knees but I'll still feel that some of the magic has come my way. Thanks to a teacher who inspires. Inspiro, Latin, I breathe on. A teacher who breathes fire, not smoke.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham College, Surrey. E-mail:

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